Last week, my friend Jay’s head asploded. Ok, not literally, but what better way is there to describe the experience of suddenly and jarringly discovering that your child is being taught to believe in young earth creationism and to reject evolution?
Jay was recently faced with this realization after his son had spent a semester attending a small private school associated with one of the Lutheran churches in town. Last week, his sixth grader came home with a graded school paper that set off alarm bells and confirmed all of his worst fears about sending his son to a religious school. Caleb was given a writing assignment, and he wrote about a topic that a lot of kids find fascinating and that shouldn’t be all that controversial:
“Dinosaurs lived over 150 million years ago and are split into two food groups herbivores and carnivores and that scientists believe that they have envolved into birds.”
His teacher’s response?
“The earth is only 6,000 years old. How can this be true? God created dinosaurs and birds at the same time. How could they evolved into something else?”
Although I’m now an atheist, I was raised in the Catholic faith (as was Jay…in fact, my aunt was his biology teacher at his Catholic high school), and I had been taught that the biblical creation story in Genesis should be viewed through a historical lens and is not to be taken literally. The official position of the Catholic church states (emphasis mine):
“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.”
I had always considered the Lutheran church to be “cousins twice-removed” from the Catholic church. Their prayers and services were a little different, but they were the one of the closest to Catholics in the Christian spectrum. Regarding creationism vs. evolution, the official position of the largest Lutheran body in the United States (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, or ELCA) is noncommittal, although over 1,700 ELCA ministers have signed onto the Christian Clergy Letter in support of evolution:
“We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”
Thus, when Jay and his wife enrolled Caleb in the private school, they were not expecting that he would be getting an education in creationism. Luckily, Caleb had been at this school for only one semester, and they were able to immediately re-enroll him in the public school that he had been attending previously.
This meant losing out on the small class size and personal attention that had made the private school so attractive, but that became secondary to their concerns about the education he was receiving. These concerns were validated when, while discussing with Caleb the reasons for transferring him back to his old school so suddenly, he admitted that he didn’t believe in evolution. Considering what he wrote for his assignment, it’s difficult to tell whether he was feeling any cognitive dissonance or if this was just doublethink, but Jay is certain that it stems from Caleb’s semester in this school.
My stepson is the same age as Caleb, and he is a sponge. He is generally uncritical of anything he learns at school but can turn on a dime if our conversation at home challenges his pre-established beliefs. Like most kids, he takes on the opinions and beliefs of the people around him. This is the age that most children are only just starting to acquire abstract reasoning skills. It’s no surprise, then, that Caleb was so easily influenced.
At least they had a public school alternative to turn to. Now he should be in the good hands of some proper evolution-loving educators. Right? Right?
Not so fast. Chris Kirk at Slate has written an article that exposes where in America a child can get a publicly funded education in creationism. Or where, in the case of Tennessee and Louisiana, creationism is legally allowed in public schools.
In case anyone was feeling relieved that their state was free of creation-dots, PZ Myers over at FreethoughtBlogs links to a 2011 article pointing out that roughly 25% of Minnesota biology teachers actively teach creationism in the classroom, compared to 60% who teach evolution (the rest are apparently staying out of it). Nationally, only 28% of biology teachers “consistently” teach evolution in the classroom. (According to the survey cited in the Minnesota article, the biology teachers least likely to teach creationism are in Catholic schools.)
I have people in my life that I truly like and respect who think that whether you believe in evolution or creationism is a matter of where you place your faith: science or God. For me, it’s less about faith than it is about trust. I used to work for someone who liked to say “trust but verify.” In other words, make sure that your trust is deserved. It’s an iterative process, and it takes effort. Does the evidence support my continued trust, or do I need to reevaluate and put my trust elsewhere? Faith, on the other hand is, by definition, belief without evidence. “Just have faith” means believe even though you may have no other reason to do so.
I trust in the scientific method. I trust in the accumulation of centuries’ worth of scientific studies and analysis and evidence, across scientific disciplines as diverse as biology and geology and chemistry and cosmology. I trust that this isn’t God playing an epic practical joke on the human race, making all of the evidence point away from the truth and snickering as we fall for it. I trust that we may never know for certain how it all started, and that the uncertainty does not invalidate all of the other evidence.
It sure would be nice if we could trust our school systems to pass all that evidence on to our children.
For current news and advocacy on this issue and climate change education in our schools, check out the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).